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Design

Coming to Terms with a Very Odd User Interface

What are these giant buttons on Amazon.com?

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Have you seen these giant button things show up on Amazon.com? There’s probably nothing else quite like them on the entire internet:

The buttons are the virtual permutation of a plastic product called Dash Buttons. The devices themselves aren’t much more than a “Hello World” in the Internet of Things: a button that, when pressed from the comfort of your pantry, sets off a series of events in the Amazon underworld. That button-press — conveniently for you — places an order for stuff like laundry detergent and cat litter, and — conveniently for Amazon — withdraws monies from your bank account before dropping your jug of laundry detergent in its own personal cardboard box and next-day shipping it to your welcome mat.

Dash buttons are Wi-Fi connected, so the idea is that you’ll paste them inside your cupboards and behind your cleaning supplies. Never add Tide to a grocery list again. Push the button when the inconvenience of running out of the product is at its keenest. Dash Buttons are probably the purest possible “Don’t Make Me Think” interface.

Amazon wants to be within arm’s length of your toilet.

That’s the plastic version. Early this year, however, a digital rendering of the Dash Buttons showed up in the sidebar for logged-in Amazon Prime users.

I’m fascinated by the buttons because I mistook them for a switch. You know, the controls that on iOS are a bright green boolean toggle so eminently slidable that you sometimes flip them back and forth when you’re bored, just to watch them move? For the first week or two after noticing the virtual Amazon Dash buttons on the web, I thought they were the granddaddy of all switch toggles with product branding shoehorned into the negative space. Flip the chunky switch, maybe, and enjoy a steady stream of stuff until I switch the stream back off?

I was only confused because I’m not a user of the physical Dash Buttons. Now I realize they look the way they do because Amazon designed them to look exactly like the plastic version. Had I been a user of the plastic buttons at home, I’d have instantly recognized the new interface in my sidebar (Amazon notes that “when you register a Dash Button device, we’ll automatically create a virtual Dash Button for the same product”).

I noticed the virtual Dash Buttons because they offended my carefully honed designer sensibilities. I’ve written about how good interface design empathizes with users in the virtual world using patterns from users’ daily lives. I still believe that, but my empathy has limits. There’s a sliding skeuomorphism scale in every interface, and pixel-perfect duplication of physical stuff on a screen is way too far for my tastes.

oh, I get it—you click, not slide

They made a legend for people like me.

But what if my design sensibilities are out of touch with the way the average Amazon customer shops? What if the customer who enjoys the convenience of a physical dash button to reorder laundry detergent is unconcerned with design critique about the mismatched affordance of their Dash Buttons? Maybe the average Amazon customer just thinks “when I push this Tide button on my washing machine, Tide appears on my porch. Now when I’m on the Amazon website, I see a picture of my button. I can press it there too.”

It doesn’t take much imagination to see how an iconic clicker device, rendered carefully as an image on the website, will be instantly usable for a huge percentage of Amazon customers. I believe design is a whole lot more than the way something looks, but the virtual Dash Button reminded me that sometimes usable design has absolutely everything to do with the way it looks. Amazon is betting that we’ll see the button, mash the button, and happily await our stuff.

Begrudgingly, I’ve come to realize Amazon might have made a good call on the design of the virtual Dash Buttons. As shrewd capitalists, they’re making a tradeoff in sophisticated visual design to tap into our Pavlovian instincts. Most of us aren’t willing to take that much risk. Somewhere in here is an argument to be made for whether this is good design or dark design, but for now, I’ve come to terms with the feature as immensely pragmatic. It’s probably the most obvious way to get the most obvious reaction from a customer.

Neil Renicker is a senior designer at Postlight.

Story published on Mar 1, 2017.